By Mike Lillis and Jason Millman - 01/06/11 09:17 PM EST
House Democratic leaders on Thursday blasted Republicans for dismissing the official cost estimate of healthcare repeal in favor of their own analysis.
Ignoring the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) sets "a dangerous precedent," the Democrats warned, adding that it not only runs counter to GOP campaign promises, but could pile hundreds of billions of dollars onto the nation's debt.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a vice chairwoman of the Democratic Steering Committee, echoed those sentiments. The Florida Democrat said adopting a system of partisan scorekeeping would make a mockery of the process.
"We might as well just make it up as we go along," said Wasserman Schultz.
On Wednesday, the House adopted rules for the 112th Congress allowing GOP leaders to ignore the budget implications of repealing the new healthcare reform law. The CBO on Thursday estimated the cost of repeal to be $230 billion over the next 10 years, with hundreds of billions of dollars more expected to accumulate over the following decade.
Republicans have dismissed the estimates, accusing Democrats of "rigging" the process with a series of accounting tricks.
"I do not believe that repealing the job-killing healthcare law will increase the deficit," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters Thursday. "CBO is entitled to their opinion, but they're locked within constraints of the 1974 Budget Act."
Pressed on the topic, Boehner said, "CBO can only provide a score based on the assumptions that are given to them. And if you go back and look at the healthcare bill and the assumptions that were given to them, you see all of the double-counting that went on, you see the fact that the doc fix wasn't even part of the bill."
It wasn't always this way. At the height of the healthcare reform debate in 2009, Republican leaders in both chambers leaned on CBO estimates both to delay the process and to tout their own proposals.
In June 2009, for instance, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), then the minority whip, trumpeted the Republicans' alternative bill after the CBO had delivered its cost estimate. "The news yesterday from the CBO," Cantor said, "is the turning point in the healthcare debate" allowing lawmakers "to put some reason back into the discussion."
A month earlier, Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said of the Democrats' healthcare hopes, "For healthcare budgeting purposes, CBO’s word is the only one that counts."
Not in this case. Instead, House Republican leaders unveiled a report Thursday indicating the healthcare law will increase deficit spending by roughly $700 billion over the next decade, and cost the nation $2.6 trillion when fully implemented. The analysis was done by Republicans on the House Budget Committee.
The CBO estimate unveiled Thursday is preliminary, with the official score to arrive "in the near future." The distinction could mean the repeal bill — scheduled for a floor vote next Wednesday — could pass before the official estimate is known — a sharp contrast to the initial debate on the reform bill, when the process was often delayed while lawmakers waited for CBO's number-crunchers to produce their latest estimates.
Van Hollen said it was “troubling” that Republicans could stage a repeal vote without getting the final CBO score.
“The CBO, to the best of my knowledge, will require a couple of more weeks to do it, and it just shows a reckless approach toward the deficit that they [Republicans] are prepared to steamroll ahead without getting any final numbers,” he said.
The offices of both Boehner and Cantor did not respond to requests for comment.
Van Hollen and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) intend to introduce an amendment delaying repeal of the healthcare law until the CBO verifies the bill won't add to deficits. Because Republicans don't plan to allow amendments to their bill, the Democrats don't expect their proposal to be accepted.
The episode has been tough on Republicans, who retook the House in November on a message of balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility. The discrepancy hasn't been lost on the minority Democrats, who seem to be reveling in the contradictions between the Republicans' campaign promises and their governing strategy.
"They're breaking their first promise in their first week," said Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.). "This is going to go down in record as the hypocrisy Congress."